Accusations of Sexual Harassment in National Women’s Soccer League Causes Players to Demand Change

By: Latifa Waithera Zain 

A recent investigation by The Athletic investigated the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which brought accusations of sexual and verbal harassment by coaches in the league to light. 

U.S. national team forward Alex Morgan and her United States Women’s National soccer team (USWNT) teammates have been fighting for equal pay in women’s sports for years.

“I feel like there’s this idea that we should be grateful for what we have, and we shouldn’t raise important questions or ask questions at all,” said Morgan in an interview with The Athletic.

Sinead Farrelly, a retired professional soccer midfielder, was drafted as the second overall pick in the 2011 Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) College Draft for the Philadelphia Independence by Paul Riley. Farrelly went on to play for three different clubs, all coached by Riley.  

Farrelly detailed her experience with Riley during an interview with The Athletic. She said that she felt like Riley coerced her into his hotel room where they had sex after the Indepdence lost the WPS championship. 

She also said that she had sex with him and a teammate after what she says was a night of excessive drinking. At this time Farrelly said the WPS had folded, and she was playing for Riley on a Long Island semi-pro team.  

“I feel like you see things like this happen a lot in women’s sports in general and it stems a lot from the over sexualization of women even for doing the sports that a man can do,” said Nola Myers, a sophomore and soccer player at The University of Tampa. 

When Riley became the coach of the Portland Thorns in the NWSL in December 2013, Farrelly told the Athletic that she was almost certain that he’d trade for her, and he did. Farrelly didn’t play for the Thorns that season as she was undergoing medical tests. She went to doctor after doctor and even underwent a brain scan. 

“I realize now that I was not ok,” said Farrelly. “I couldn’t function under him, I couldn’t function to play soccer anymore.”  

Taylor Maddalena, a sophomore international business major, expressed her understating for Farrelly and her struggles working under Riley. 

“I’ve had a lot of coaches, some bad and some good,” said Maddalena. “The bad coaches really made me question whether or not I wanted to continue to play soccer and I would not look forward to going to practice or games as much.”

Farrelly wasn’t the only player at the Portland Thorns to claim to have been assaulted by Riley. 

Meleane “Mana” Shim, former soccer midfielder, also spoke to The Athletic.

Both Farrelly and Shim said Riley sent unsolicited lurid pictures of himself to them.  

Alex Morgan took to twitter on Sept. 30 to amplify the voices of her former teammates, sharing an email Farrelly had sent to Lisa Baird, NWSL commissioner. 

In this email, sent in April, 2021, Farrelly asked Baird to consider her case again due to the “recently enacted policies to protect players and staff and to ensure a safe and inclusive workplace for all.”  

Morgan also posted Baird’s response to the email, which said, “We reviewed our files and can confirm that the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion.”  

Farrelly had asked Baird to review her case from 2015. Although her investigation led to Riley being fired for the Portland Thorns that year, he was soon hired by the North Carolina Courage.  

“Such conduct shouldn’t have a place in women’s soccer,” said Farrelly in her email to Baird.  

Since The Athletic published their investigation, Riley was fired from the North Carolina Courage and Baird resigned from her position as league commissioner. The NWSL also canceled games on Oct. 1-2 to hold a meeting with the players regarding the next step that they should take.  

Women’s soccer players across the world have shown their support for Farrelly, Shim and the NWSL players. Arsenal and Everton’s women’s teams took a minute out of their game on Oct. 10 to join arms in a circle and show their support for the NWSL players. The women are demanding change and protection. 

“You’re supposed to be able to trust your coach,” said Caitlin Smith, sophomore international business and marketing double major.   

Gotham FC fired their general manager Alyse LaHue on July 9 per their anti-harassment policy. The Washington Spirits terminated the contract of head coach Rickie Burke on Sept. 28 after a Washington Post report alleging that Burke used racist language and verbal abuse towards players. On Aug. 31, Racing Louisville’s head coach Christy Holly’s contract was terminated after players reported a “toxic environment.”  

All this and the reports against Paul Riley have pushed the NWSL players to the edge. They want change and they want it now. Although their games have resumed, it’s not business as usual.  

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